The 2016 Presidential Election Is Getting Pretty Surreal
The 2016 presidential election is shaping up to be the most surreal political contest in modern American history.
The Democratic frontrunner is openly mocking an FBI investigation of her behaviour in office. The Republican leader is Donald Trump. And a socialist is drawing crowds that stopped traffic at the Iowa State Fair. This is the year American politics has truly gone through the looking glass.
There have been glimmers of weirdness before. In 2011, the Republican frontrunner was, briefly, Herman Cain, a pizza magnate who took his tax plan from a computer game and quoted a song from the Pokemon movie in his speeches.
In 1992, there was a time where it appeared the next president would be Ross Perot, a Texas billionaire best known for his fears that the Republican party would sabotage his daughter’s wedding and his belief that a speech without a pie chart was an opportunity wasted. And, of course, in 1972 Edmund Muskie, the seemingly inevitable Democratic frontrunner, melted down in part because of a rumor he was prejudiced against French Canadians.
But this cycle beats them all.
Although Hillary Clinton’s campaign once appeared to be a political juggernaut, she is taking on water as more and more details emerge about her use of a private email server while serving as Barack Obama’s first secretary of state. Democratic insiders are confident the scandal will not harm her in the primary, but worry it could prove fatal in a general election, in which a majority of voters do not see Clinton as trustworthy.
In a speech at the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding in Clear Lake on Friday, Clinton not only painted the scandal which has led to an FBI investigation as a partisan witch-hunt – she made a joke of it.
Clinton said: “You may have seen that I recently launched a Snapchat account. I love it. I love it. Those messages disappear all by themselves.”
The former secretary of state had more than 30,000 email messages deleted from her server after, in 2014, the State Department requested she hand over all work-related emails from her time in the Obama administration. In a March press conference, Clinton defended herself, saying the messages “were about planning Chelsea’s wedding … as well as yoga routines, family vacations, the other things you typically find in inboxes”.
However, questions have since been raised over whether some of those emails related to official government business and were, therefore, wrongly deleted.
While Clinton’s speech in Iowa drew applause, some observers were taken aback by jokes about an FBI investigation into her conduct. One well-connected IowaDemocrat’s immediate response was: “Oh God.”
A Republican Super Pac, meanwhile, raced to put the footage online. Jeff Bechdel, a spokesman for America Rising, told the Guardian: “Secretary Clinton’s Snapchat joke, if it can be called that, offers further evidence that she doesn’t understand the seriousness of the investigation into her private email account.”
Regardless, Clinton was mobbed during a brief excursion to the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on Saturday. Secret service agents had to battle to allow Clinton to get a traditional photo op – eating a pork chop on a stick.
She was not the only presidential frontrunner present. Trump spurred a near riot. The real estate mogul and former Celebrity Apprentice star arrived on a helicopter, at a baseball field near the the fairgrounds, then went on by golf cart while the helicopter remained to give flights to eager children – an attraction more fantastic than anything on the midway.
Trump – dressed in Palm Beach chic, blazer with no tie and white shoes, topped off with a red baseball hat emblazoned with the slogan “Make America Great Again” – was in prime form. Asked by reporters in an interview on his helicopter if his great wealth might provoke a backlash, as experienced by the plutocratic Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, he said: “Well, I don’t know. First of all, he wasn’t rich.”
Trump was slightly nicer in his golf cart, when he was asked about Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive who is challenging him for the nomination. But he did say she was bad at business.
“She’s a very nice woman,” he said. “She got fired; she did a terrible job at Hewlett-Packard.”
Yet, while Trump’s run for the White House has often seemed more like a national tour by an insult comedian than a presidential campaign – more Rodney Dangerfield than Robert Kennedy – his appearance was timed to the release of his first policy paper, on the topic of illegal immigration.
Trump has long recommended building a wall between the US and Mexico and making Mexico pay for it. But on Saturday he actually provided details of how he would make Mexico fork out the money – by impounding remittance money sent back to their families by Mexican workers in the US and increasing fees on border crossings and visas.
The feisty right liked it. The provocative pundit Ann Coulter said on Twitter: “I don’t care if @realDonaldTrump wants to perform abortions in White House after this immigration policy paper.”
Coulter followed that by calling the policy paper: “The greatest political document since the Magna Carta.”
Despite his policy rollout, there are still some holes in Trump’s policy knowledge. When he was asked on NBC’s Meet the Press about who he consulted for military advice, his response was: “Well, I watch the [Sunday] shows.”
He added that he talked to former United Nations ambassador John Bolton and retired army colonel Jack Jacobs, an analyst for NBC.
Trump did not linger long at the fair. But lest anyone doubt his populist appeal, the next event on his schedule was appearing for jury duty in New York.
“Despite running for president and running a massive, multi-billion-dollar company, Mr Trump will be at jury duty Monday,” a Trump lawyer told the New York Daily News.
As Trump was flying in to Des Moines on Saturday, he passed over the Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist who is mounting a strong challenge to Clinton.
“I apologize,” Sanders told his crowd. “We left the helicopter at home.”
Sanders and Trump do have two things in common. Both speak in a broad New York accent that leads to pronouncing the word “huge” with a “y” instead of an “h”. And both are tapping into a deep and intense frustration with politics as usual.
Sanders is not even a registered Democrat, although he does caucus with the Democrats in the Senate. And although he has spent two-and-a-half decades on Capitol Hill, he started his career as a Vermont mayor, in a liberal college town which is only half-jokingly known as “the People’s Republic of Burlington”.
In sweltering heat, Sanders drew 1,000 to the Des Moines Register’s soapbox. The crowd had to be corralled at times to avoid stopping traffic. The attendees were diverse by any standard, let alone those of a state such as Iowa where 94% of residents are white. They cheered after almost every other sentence of Sanders’s stump speech as he attacked the “billionaire class” and called for single-payer healthcare and a $15 minimum wage.
Yet it was not even most impressive crowd Sanders attracted on Saturday. Hours before in Boone, a town of just over 12,500 which is best known as the birthplace of Mamie Eisenhower, 600 people came to see him – according to his campaign.
Nor is the Vermont senator only attracting the usual leftwing suspects, such as those attendees who wore “Oligarchy Response Team” T-shirts. Sydney Storm of Des Moines told the Guardian he had come to the fair specifically to see Sanders. A regular caucusgoer who was “pretty inspired by Obama” in 2008 and “likes Clinton a lot as well”, he said he was inspired by Sanders’ message.
“I believe in everything he says he stands for,” Storm said.
Sanders adviser Tad Devine, a top Democratic political consultant who was on the John Kerry 2004 presidential campaign, believes the common thread in enthusiasm for Sanders and Trump is disgust with the country’s corrupt politics.
“I think people have a real sense that the problem lies in the political system,” Devine said on Sunday. “That the political system has been corrupted, that it’s been taken over by big money, and they want something done about it.”
“Bernie says, ‘I’m going to raise money in small amounts,’” Devine said. “That’s how he deals with it. Trump shows up and says, ‘I’ll pick up the check.’ That’s what he basically says.”
Devine took pains, though, to differentiate his candidate, noting: “We would argue that Trump, he’s a manifestation of that corruption, as far as we’re concerned. He’s up there bragging about all the politicians he’s bought.”
With Sanders ahead in one New Hampshire poll and gaining ground in Iowa, Devine dismissed wonder at the size of the crowds the Vermont senator is drawing. Regarding the way the race has unfolded so far, his words had a wider resonance.
“I think,” he said, “we’re all getting used to not being surprised anymore.”